South Asia generally evokes the image of a region that is afflicted by violent religious extremism where groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are active. It is also noted for being a place where clandestine nuclear proliferation has taken place allegedly in connivance with the A. Q. Khan network active from Pakistan. Then there is the enduring India-Pakistan hostility and rivalry, despite occasional peace initiatives. The various terror attacks launched within India allegedly with the support or incitement of Pakistan are a manifestation of this rivalry. However, while this South Asia remains a reality, what is encouraging is that not all of South Asia is in a state of dreariness. There is a part of South Asia which is trying to overcome similar problems and create a new situation that is conducive for progress.
India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives constitute the changing face of South Asia. Nepal too is not a part of this group because it is still struggling with writing a constitution and establishing democracy.
Sri Lanka has made rapid progress after the end of the Tamil insurgency, which was led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It has signed a free trade agreement with India and the Indo-Sri Lankan bilateral trade is booming. Indian investment firms and multi-nationals have played a crucial role in the Sri Lankan economic growth. While the ‘ethnic war’ is over and though the Tamil political demands have not yet been resolved, yet the country is doing well economically.
In South Asia the most encouraging development, however, seems to be taking place between India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh was also threatening to emerge as a major trouble spot during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led four-party regime, which included some Islamist parties bent upon giving a fillip to religious extremism in the country. The sudden upsurge in religious extremism even led to predictions that Bangladesh could become the next Afghanistan.
However, sincere efforts have been made to rein in extremism. This happened, to some extent, under the caretaker government led by Fakharuddin Ahmed. But, a decisive move against extremism was made under the government of Sheikh Hasina. Hasina’s party, after coming to power with an overwhelming majority, went against these forces with full vigour. It launched a war crimes trial against parties like Jamaat-e-Islami which had committed atrocities on the local population during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. It also busted several modules of Pakistani terror groups in Bangladesh. Action was taken against the local Islamist group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) as well. India-Bangladesh relations improved significantly with Bangladesh’s clampdown on anti-India groups active on its soil. Bangladesh handed over several leaders of insurgent groups to India who were hiding in Bangladesh and waging insurgency in north-east India.
India has noticed this cooperative effort on the part of Bangladesh and bilateral relations reached a new level when Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi in January 2010. During the last one and a half years, after Sheikh Hasina’s state visit to India, both sides have taken many steps forward. They plan to resolve several outstanding issues such as disputes over the land boundary, sharing of common river waters and addressing the trade deficit which is unfavourable to Bangladesh.
Some understanding has been reached on the issue of transit as well. India has been demanding transit through Bangladesh to its landlocked north-eastern states for long. But this was denied by the earlier regimes in Bangladesh, though India had the facility till 1965. Currently, Bangladesh plans to involve Bhutan and Nepal in the transit issue. It has allowed both Nepal and Bhutan, which are landlocked, to use Chittagong and Mongla Port. Bhutanese vehicles would be using Indian territory to reach Bangladesh. An agreement to this effect was signed when Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna visited Bangladesh recently. He also signed an agreement on protection of Indian investments in Bangladesh. Indian multi-nationals plan to invest $3.5 billion in Bangladesh in the near future. This is likely to further boost Bangladesh’s economic growth which is already growing at a fast pace. Further, unilateral trade concessions are likely when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Bangladesh later this year.
This is a new beginning for a major part of South Asia. Though Pakistan and Afghanistan still continue to be embroiled in religious and ethnic conflict, the rest of South Asia appears keen to check and go beyond such tendencies. They also appear dedicated to giving priority to economic growth and regional integration. The hope is that this characteristic of regional cooperation would soon become a model for even that part of South Asia where peace and stability has been elusive.